What If Bert Blyleven Had Won Game 2 of the 1979 World Series?

With the deadline for the 10+ year members of the BBWAA to submit their Hall of Fame ballots looming, the final round of the Great Internet Bert Blyleven Debate is heating up. If you need refreshing, Blyleven received 17.5% of the vote on his first Hall of Fame ballot in 1998, but slowly over the earlier part of this decade a few sabermetricians (spearheaded by Rich Lederer) pointed out how strong his Hall of Fame case is and he’s slowly gathered support to the point that he missed the Hall by just four ballots last year.

Besides being a great argument for why the Hall of Fame requires players to be retired for five years before being eligible for the ballot and then leaves players on for so long (you sometimes have to remove yourself from anything to truly understand it and baseball playing careers are no different), Blyleven’s candidacy has been a point of debate online the past few years between those making the case for him and the older school journalists who don’t like Blyleven’s poor win percentage or the fact that Blyleven “wasn’t the ace” on the World Series winner that he pitched for in his prime, the 1979 Pirates. 

As a result there’s been a counter-movement to get Jack Morris votes, based on Morris’s brilliant Game 7 of the 1991 World Series and intangible things like him being the “ace” of a few World Series winners or explaining away his high career ERA as “pitching to the scoreboard.” I don’t really want to debate the merits of Blyleven vs. Morris (other people do that just fine), but seeing Blyleven get knocked for his performance in the 1979 World Series always kind of bugs me.

Blyleven pitched the penultimate game of the regular season in 1979, on September 29th. The Pirates began the NLCS that year against the Cincinnati Reds just three days later, on October 2nd. Candelaria started Game 1 against the Reds and won, which meant there was little reason to use Blyleven on three days rest in Game 2, which Jim Bibby started. Blyleven started Game 3 on the 4th and threw a complete game to close out the series against the Reds and send the Pirates to the World Series. 

The World Series didn’t start until six days later (October 10), and it was a bit of an oddity in that the first five games were played without an off-day. It wasn’t uncommon for a team to use their best starter on three days rest so that they could make three starts back then, but without the off-day between games 2 and 3 that was more or less an impossibility in the ’79 Series. Mike Flanagan (265 2/3 IP and the 1979 Cy Young winner in the AL) didn’t make three starts for the Orioles. This schedule caused Tanner to out-manage himself a bit at the beginning of the Series. Instead of going with the fully-rested Candelaria or Blyleven in Game 1, he went with one of the unsung heroes of the 1971 World Series, Bruce Kison, who hadn’t pitched since the last day of the regular season. That let him line up Blyleven for Game 2 and then Game 6 and Candelaria for Games 3 and 7, with both of their second starts coming on short rest.

Many of you are probably familiar with the way the Series played out, but for the younger set (myself included) or those in need of a refresher, Kison got rocked in Game 1, which forced Game 5 starter Jim Rooker to pitch in long relief. Blyleven started Game 2, pitched well, was lifted after six for a pinch-hitter in a 2-2 game, and the Pirates won with a run in the ninth. Candelaria got rocked in Game 3, the Pirates’ bullpen imploded in Game 4, Rooker was forced to start Game 5 on what amounted to short rest and left after five with the Pirates down 1-0; Blyleven came in on two days rest and pitched four scoreless to get the win. Candelaria threw a gem in Game 6, and Jim Bibby and the bullpen held the Orioles to one run in Game 7 to help Stargell and the offense to the Series win. 

After the season ended, the Pittsburgh Press ran a story about the differences between Tanner and Blyleven (Blyleven hated that Tanner wouldn’t let him finish games, as was the general practice at the time) and how they’d made up during the Series and, in discussing Blyleven’s relief appearance in Game 5 Tanner says, “We were in a situation where we couldn’t go anywhere but home. So we used Blyleven.”  If Sparky Anderson had said that about Jack Morris in 1984, it would be the rallying cry for his Hall of Fame candidacy. But Tanner said it about Blyleven, and no one remembers it  at all(including myself; I had no idea it existed until I came across it via BBTF user Guapo in the BBTF discussion thread for Heyman’s ballot, which is what got me started on this post)

So let’s go back into the Series and tweak one small detail to form my hypothesis statement. Instead of drawing a pinch-hit walk for Blyleven in the top of the seventh of Game 2, Mike Easler singles and Bill Madlock scores from second base. The Pirates go up 3-2 in the seventh instead of the ninth. They still win the game and the arc of the series remains unaffected except that Blyleven gets the win in Game 2. Doesn’t this change the narrative entirely? After Game 5, isn’t he the pitcher that single-handedly kept the Pirates in the World Series up to that point? Remember: just because we don’t value wins as much in 2010 doesn’t mean that wins weren’t valued in 1979 and because wins were important then, they shape how the Series is remembered. 

Blyleven’s postseason numbers in 1979 were sparkling; he allowed three earned runs in 19 innings over the NLCS and World Series, he gave up just 16 hits and walked three batters, and struck out 13 (1.42 ERA, 1.00 WHIP). The weird lay of the Series that year and Tanner’s decision to go with Kison instead of him or Candelaria in Game 1 kept him from a signature start in the last two games, though, and without a win in Game 2 he’s just a guy that pitched ten strong innings in the first five games and got a win, then got buried underneath the rest of the Pirates’ dramatic comeback. A win in Game 2, though, makes him the only pitcher with two wins that World Series and I think that there’s a good chance that he’s remembered as the guy that both kept the Pirates in the World Series and helped start the dramatic comeback instead of one of the cogs in the machine that pushed it along. And you know what? If that were the case, I’d bet he’d already be in the Hall of Fame.

I’m not challenging those that remember the 1979 World Series and don’t remember Blyleven as playing a big role. I’m not blaming the media that covered the team for portraying his contribution unfairly. But sometimes small changes make big differences, and I can’t help but wonder what effect something that was almost completely out of Blyleven’s control might be having on the pitcher’s entire legacy here. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.